These three beakers or flasks are of elongated, spherical form. Each sits on three small cabriole legs. Each is chased in high relief with Zoroastrian scenes and symbols. In a Persian style, they are likely to have been made by one of several silversmiths in Bombay who catered to the local Parsi community. The Indian origins of the three is attested to in part by the presence of Indian cows with humps on their necks (known as zebu or brahmin cattle) on two of the three beakers. By the early twentieth century, there were three main Parsee silver shops in Bombay that specialised in making Parsee-themed ritual items for the local community (Cama, 1998).
Possibly, the three were commissioned to hold water which was placed on muktad remembrance tables as offerings for the deceased. Muktad, the annual prayers for the dead, is celebrated in the last ten days of the Parsee calendar. The muktad days are set aside to remember the fravashis or spirits of the dead. A vase is commissioned for each deceased family member and during muktad, in a room set aside for the purpose, the vases filled with flowers, are placed on tables and blessed. Food and beakers of water are also left on the tables. A small fire is kept burning in the room for the ten days.
Among the Parsee religious motifs on these beakers are the winged Parsee deity Ahura Mazda and representations of the sacred fire. Each beaker is decorated with an upper frieze of roses, which often appear on silverwork made for the Bombay Parsees.
Parsees subscribe to Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest living religions. Darius was crowned king of Persia in 522 BC, and was the first of the Achaemenid kings to be confirmed as a true follower of Zoroaster. Ahura Mazda, proclaimed by Zoroaster as God, was mentioned and celebrated as Creator in many of Darius’ speeches.
Today, probably there are fewer than 125,000 Parsees or Zoroastrians worldwide. Perhaps no more than 80,000 live in Mumbai/Bombay, a city of 14 million people, and no more than 6,000 live in Karachi in Pakistan.
Like the Chinese of Southeast Asia, the Parsees of India and Pakistan are a distinct but exceptionally successful commercial minority. By the nineteenth century, Bombay’s Parsee families dominated the city’s commercial sector, particularly in spinning and dyeing and banking.
Wealth from these activities was put into property so that by 1855, it was estimated that Parsee families owned about half of the island of Bombay. Today, India’s most prominent Parsee family is the Tata Family, founders and owners of India’s most prominent conglomerate the Tata Group.
Well off though they are as a community, the Parsees are dying out. It has been estimated that a thousand Parsees die each year in Mumbai, but only 300- 400 are born. Today, one in five Mumbai Parsees is aged 65 or more. In 1901 the figure was one in fifty. Low birth rates are the main factor. Probably no Parsees remain in Burma today.
Nonetheless, many vestiges of the Parsees’ contribution to commerce in South and East Asia remain. Apart from India’s giant Tata Group, smaller examples can be seen: small change offices in Hong Kong are known locally as ‘schroffs’ after a common Parsee surname, and in Singapore the road that runs alongside that country’s finance ministry is known as Parsi Road.
The three beakers here are in excellent condition. One has a more silvery tone than the others. This is probably because it was cleaned more than the others but in time, it will adopt the same hue as the other two.
Parsee family group, Bombay.
Cama, S., ‘Parsi crafts: Gifts from Magi’, UNESCO Power of Creativity Magazine, Vol. 2, August 2008.
Framjee, D., The Parsees: Their History, Manners, Customs and Religion, Asian Education Services, 2006 (first published in 1858.)
Godrej, P.J. & F. Punthakey Mistree, A Zoroastrian Tapestry: Art, Religion & Culture, Mapin Publishing, 2002.
Stewart, S. (ed.), The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination, SOAS, 2013.